Nurse Practitioner (NP) vs. Physician Assistant (PA)

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants both play a very important role in healthcare. They share similar duties, but there are also some important differences. Learn more about nurse practitioners vs. physician assistants.

Education

Nurse practitioners complete the same undergraduate program as registered nurses, then complete either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

After completing a graduate program, nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam offered by one of several certifying organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP). Lastly, they must apply for and obtain a license in their state (requirements vary by state).

Physician assistants follow a different educational path than nurse practitioners. First, they complete an undergraduate degree in pre-med or a relevant scientific field. Then, they complete a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program and take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). PAs must also obtain a license with their state (requirements vary by state).

Overall, becoming a nurse practitioner takes anywhere from six to eight years. This may vary depending on whether you earn an MSN or DNP and whether you attend school full time or part time.

It takes about five to seven years to become a physician assistant, but this also varies.

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners share many of the same duties as physician assistants. The main difference is that NPs receive a patient-focused education, whereas PA education focuses on disease diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, some states allow nurse practitioners to work independently, while physician assistants must always work under the supervision of a doctor.

Nurse Practitioner Physician Assistant
  • Record medical history and symptoms
  • Observe and examine patients
  • Diagnose and treat conditions
  • Create and contribute to treatment plans, changing treatment plan as necessary
  • Observe patient response to treatment
  • Order, perform and/or interpret medical tests
  • Prescribe medicine (if state law allows)
  • Give patients medication and other treatments
  • Operate medical equipment
  • Educate patients on managing health conditions
  • Collaborate with the rest of a patient’s treatment team
  • Examine patients and record medical histories
  • Order medical tests
  • Diagnose and treat conditions
  • Educate patients and answer their questions
  • Prescribe medicine
  • Monitor patient’s condition

Salary and Job Outlook

The median salary for nurse practitioners is $113,930 vs. $108,610 median salary for physician assistants. However, salary can vary widely depending on location and area of practice.

Nurse practitioner and physician assistant jobs are both projected to grow “much faster than average” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 26% projected growth for NPs and 31% projected growth for PAs.

Practice Areas

No matter what field of medicine you’re drawn to, you’ll be able to work in it as either a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. Keep in mind that NPs often have to pick a specialization and then get certified in that area, whereas PAs take a more general certification exam. This means you’ll likely have greater career flexibility as a PA.

Work Schedules

Like most healthcare professionals, nurse practitioners and physician assistants may be required to work night, weekend, and holiday shifts. Schedules largely depend on the work environment. Emergency room NPs and PAs will have more irregular schedules than those working in an outpatient doctor’s office, for example.

Additionally, you may have on-call time as either an NP or a PA. This means you will need to be available outside of normal working hours and may even handle 24-hour shifts, staying at the hospital or treatment center overnight.

Should I Become a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician Assistant?

The decision to become a nurse practitioner or physician assistant depends on your personal goals, preferences, and beliefs. NPs may spend more time in school than PAs, but may also be compensated with a higher salary. NPs also tend to have a patient-centered philosophy (much like nurses), while PAs focus on diagnosing and treating disease (like doctors).